HOOVER, ALA. -- Kevin Sumlin knew the questions were coming. How could he not?
And, like clockwork, as soon as the Q&A session at SEC Media Days began, the question came. "Do you feel any additional pressure this season?"
There are several coaches in the SEC who are on the hot seat, but Sumlin's may be warmest. After three consecutive 8-5 seasons and being told publicly to win or else by AD Scott Woodward, patience in Aggieland is wearing thin.
Sumlin, however, appeared unfazed.
"The pressure I'm feeling is the same pressure I feel all of the time. And so nobody puts more pressure on me than me," he said. "And my job is every year, I look at what we do and what we do well. We want to stay ahead of the curve. When we're not doing well, it's my job to analyze it and try to fix it."
The Aggies, who were ranked fourth in the nation when the first college playoff standings came out, lost to sub-.500 Mississippi State and Ole Miss in a matter of a week, then were crushed by LSU at home to finish a horrific November. After similar skids in 2014 and 2015, Sumlin said it was clear something had to change. That "something" cost strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson his job, as he was replaced by SEC veteran Mark Hocke.
Sumlin said the changes Hocke has implemented are clear and impressive.
"I'm sure you're going to have questions about with November, are things that we made some tough decisions about last year, and that's one of our emphasis has been, to finish and be a tougher football team. Going out and hiring Mark Hocke as our head of strength and conditioning I think has made great strides to that," he said. "And that didn't start in the season. That started in January along with the 15 practices that we had in the spring. And the pace, the things that we're doing in the offseason are a little bit different. Not a little bit, a lot different than we've been in the past. So when you have a leadership group and older guys that understand that, that have been through the things in November that we've been through, that understand that head coach is trying to change it, and here's what we need to do and pass that along to the young guys, that's what leadership is about, and that's what we feel right now."
The major part of the November maulings that stands out in the memories of Aggie fans is the team's inability to stop the run. Derrius Guice's record-setting performance last Thanksgiving night was just the latest in a series of humiliating outings for a defense that crumbled down the stretch each of the last three years.
"We have got to be a better run defense. We have to. And I don't think there's any secret to that. I think that our ability to be multiple and change things up are things that we worked on a little bit. I think we were a pretty good defense early in the year. We lost some critical pieces. I think when -- over the course of the year when we lost a couple corners, and did some things, Priest Willis was playing pretty well early in the year and Nick Harvey got a little bit dinged up, we had a situation where we're putting pressure on some younger guys and gave up some big plays later on in the year, but we've got to be a better run defense," Sumlin said. "I think the things that we've talked about, the things we set down and discussed ... are things that we've implemented throughout the spring. And so do we got to get better? It's not just John Chavis. It's across the board."
The biggest question the Aggies have in 2017, besides who the starting quarterback will be, is how the team will assemble a defensive end unit after losing Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall to the draft and James Lockhart to a transfer. Sumlin made it clear that A&M will try to throw numbers at the problem.
"You have a number of guys. Qualen Cunningham has played a lot for us. Jarrett Johnson comes as a shock, for those of you who don't know. He's No. 40. He's not as big as Daeshon Hall. But believe it or not, last year he had the same sack total, same amount of production as Daeshon Hall did and played half the time. He's played a lot of football for us. He understands it's his time. He's been playing behind those two guys for years, so he was interchangeable on both sides," he said. "Michael Clemons ... is a guy that came to our place to really replace one of those two ends. He's probably the one or two -- No. 1 or 2 pass rusher in the country out of junior college. 6'5", I don't know, maybe 6'6", 260, something like that.
[We also have] Tyree Johnson. We got to have some depth. You don't ever replace a player, like just the next guy is Myles Garrett. But by committee and by who we are and maybe with Michael being the type of talent that he is, he can generate some things early, that can give us the pass rush, or the guys who are there while Michael Clemons continues to really develop."
Sumlin noted that Johnson and Clemons are two of 29 members of the 2017 recruiting class that have made their way to campus. Even with that level of turnover and the loss of Garrett, Hall, Trevor Knight and Josh Reynolds, Sumlin says he believes the next step for the Aggies will be forward, not backward.
"I know that we're doing the things that we need to do to be better, and I would not be surprised if the results don't bear that out," he said. "We have the biggest sign in our building that says 'no excuses.' We're not giving any excuses, and that starts with me."